The Human-Computer Chess Championship: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Should chess grandmasters play with a computer as an aid during a championship game? (Or, should the current world chess championship become the Advanced Chess World Championship?) Hartosh Singh Bal (‘Chessmate’, International Herald Tribune, June 5 2012) offers some arguments for this claim, but fails to consider a possible unintended consequence and leaves an interesting angle unexplored.

First, I agree that allowing chess grandmasters to use the computer engines during a championship match could result in higher-quality games. (I say that as someone who, as a rather incompetent chess player, is not entirely clear about what ‘higher-quality’ chess means, but at the very least, the opportunity for cross-vetting of moves appears likely to result in interestingly new strategies.)  However, I wonder if a tendency to defer to a computer’s moves would not manifest itself, slowly marginalizing a human player. (There is ample evidence from decision support system design literature that so-called ‘mixed’ systems–those that combine automation and human inputs–slowly become ‘pure’ as humans trust, and defer to, computer-generated outcomes.)  As the power–and corresponding opacity–of the chess engines increases–as is extremely likely–it seems the human role would diminish as well. Extremely opinionated and confident grandmasters would perhaps be more inclined to resist such deference but such resistance, I’d suggest, would be fighting a losing battle in the long run, slowly turning the collaborative game into a game between computer chess engines. In this regard, I wonder if the best role for computer chess engines in the World Chess Championship would be to remain trainers, preparing humans for games against other humans. Of course, this does not preclude the possibility of a Computer Chess Championship.

Second, in the link that Bal provides for the claim that ‘computer engines play chess better than humans’ it is noted that the ‘open-source Houdini’ engine beat the ‘commercial Rybka’ chess engine (this is the wrong contrast by the way – it should be ‘open-source’ versus ‘proprietary’; an open-source engine can also be ‘commercial’). An open-source engine could benefit from one very important source of inputs: competent chess-playing programmers, who would be able to share their implementation strategies with each other to arrive at collaborative solutions for difficult chess situations.

Incidentally, as Bal wraps up his piece he claims:

[Allowing computers to play chess alongside humans] would also teach us important things about the world. Take, for example,  a game that’s winding down with this particular configuration: rook and a bishop versus two knights.  [link in original] This situation came up in a world championship qualifying game in 2007, and the match concluded in a draw. But computer analysis showed that the game was really a forced win for black in 208 moves. This revealed not just a strategic truth about chess, but also a phenomenological truth, a truth about reality, that would otherwise have remained inaccessible. [emphasis added]

The example Bal points to shows that a particular chess configuration has an outcome not found by human players for various reasons (in this case, the sheer amount of look-ahead required).   Why is the existence of this winning strategy a ‘phenomenological truth’? Furthermore,  computer chess engines can explore such outcomes, discover such ‘truths’ if you insist, on their own–generate game configurations, explore possible winning strategies–without being involved in human chess championships.

4 thoughts on “The Human-Computer Chess Championship: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

  1. Actually the argument in chess world is going the opposite way.
    Computers have now made chess at a high level less exciting as some put it. That is because both players have same access to computers and hence their preparation resources are now same.

    That leaves only skill and mental toughness to separate the players at that level. And at GM plus levels, skill and mental toughness are also pretty close and hence you get many draws.

    Many GM’s (are pushing for Fischer Random Chess or Chess 960 variations to cut out the preparation stalemate caused by computers.

    Yes, computers give rise to higher quality but you have to take into consideration that quality alone without the uncertainity factor will lead to boredom for humans. Two computers will play on and never get bored of drawing 100 games but two humans will after certain point, break the logical mind patterns and try something just to break the boredom.

  2. Sagar: Thanks for the comment. That’s interesting to hear. I wonder if a gap might open up with customized chess software (prepared especially for one player and customized by his preparation team). Your point about boredom is interesting; it might be that the computer chess championships will play the role of simply bringing unexplored game configurations to light, which can be used for further human training on the game.

  3. In response to the idea that computers are making high-level chess more boring…people might be interested to look up Arimaa. Today’s computers don’t beat chess masters because of any particularly impressive artificial intelligence–they just have the processing power to calculate all the possible options a gazillion moves ahead, which human’s can’t. Arimaa was a game invented as a response to that disappointing fact.

    Arimaa is a strategy game that seems to be equally strategically deep and interesting as chess, and is playable with a chess board. But while its rules are easy for people to grasp, it is less constrained, so a combinatorial explosion of possibilities occurs much faster in the game. This means brute-force calculcation of options doesn’t work nearly as well, so computers don’t have the same advantages over humans. They’ve been holding human-vs.-bot tournaments every year and so far the humans have won. It’s also quite an interesting game in its own right.

    1. Dana,

      Thanks for the pointer to Arimaa – I’ll have to check it out. (Incidentally, I’d disagree that all chess engines are doing is “brute calculations” – the heuristics employed by them are becoming increasingly sophisticated.)

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